Actinic Keratosis

ExitCare ImageActinic keratosis is a precancerous growth on the skin. This means it could develop into skin cancer if it is not treated. About 1% of actinic keratoses turn into skin cancer within a year. It is important to have all such growths removed to prevent them from developing into skin cancer.


Actinic keratosis is caused by getting too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or other UV light sources.


Factors that increase your chances of getting actinic keratosis include:

  • Having light-colored skin and blue eyes.

  • Having blonde or red hair.

  • Spending a lot of time in the sun.

  • Age. The risk of actinic keratosis increases with age.


Actinic keratosis growths look like scaly, rough spots of skin. They can be as small as a pinhead or as big as a quarter. They may itch, hurt, or feel sensitive. Sometimes there is a little tag of pink or gray skin growing off them. In some cases, actinic keratoses are easier felt than seen. They do not go away with the use of moisturizing lotions or creams. Actinic keratoses appear most often on areas of skin that get a lot of sun exposure. These areas include the:

  • Scalp.

  • Face.

  • Ears.

  • Lips.

  • Upper back.

  • Backs of the hands.

  • Forearms.


Your caregiver can usually tell what is wrong by performing a physical exam. A tissue sample (biopsy) may also be taken and examined under a microscope.


Actinic keratosis can be treated several ways. Most treatments can be done in your caregiver's office. Treatment options may include:

  • Curettage. A tool is used to gently scrape off the growth.

  • Cryosurgery. Liquid nitrogen is applied to the growth to freeze it. The growth eventually falls off the skin.

  • Medicated creams, such as 5-fluorouracil or imiquimod. The medicine destroys the cells in the growth.

  • Chemical peels. Chemicals are applied to the growth and the outer layers of skin are peeled off.

  • Photodynamic therapy. A drug that makes your skin more sensitive to light is applied to the skin. A strong, blue light is aimed at the skin and destroys the growth.


To prevent future sun damage:

  • Try to avoid the sun between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. when it is the strongest.

  • Use a sunscreen or sunblock with SPF 30 or greater.

  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before exposure to the sun.

  • Always wear protective hats, clothing, and sunglasses with UV protection.

  • Avoid medicines, herbs, and foods that increase your sensitivity to sunlight.

  • Avoid tanning beds.


  • If your skin was covered with a bandage, change and remove the bandage as directed by your caregiver.

  • Keep the treated area dry as directed by your caregiver.

  • Apply any creams as prescribed by your caregiver. Follow the directions carefully.

  • Check your skin regularly for any changes.

  • Visit a skin doctor (dermatologist) every year for a skin exam.


  • Your skin does not heal and becomes irritated, red, or bleeds.

  • You notice any changes or new growths on your skin.